Synopsis – Set in Japan, Isle of Dogs follows a boy’s odyssey in search of his lost dog.
My Take – The world of cinema is filled with many prolific directors and visionaries, but there are only a few who stand out mainly due to their distinctive style which are immediately recognizable in their films, director Wes Anderson is one of them. This multiple Oscar-nominated auteur, best known for films like Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and his Best Picture Oscar-nominated The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), has gained worldwide appreciation for his distinctive quirky style. With each new film, you just know what to expect; a quirky story, a bunch of oddball characters, an impressively talented ensemble cast and an immaculately shot feature presentation.
For his latest feature, inspired both by the 1960s and 70s holiday specials produced by Rankin/Bass – and the films of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, director Anderson returns to the world of stop-motion animation, following his 2009 Oscar nominated (for Best Animated Feature) film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and expands upon what he learned previously make this magnum opus. Mixing the mediums of Stop Motion, Puppetry, Miniatures, Still Image, Traditional Animation, and Tableau for this stunning homage to the Japanese ‘Iki’ Aesthetic.
While I haven’t personally seen or appreciated many stop motion films in my lifetime barring a few LAIKA productions like Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), this film just looked incredible from how it was advertised and unsurprisingly became one of the best received films of the year upon release, pushing it high up on my need to watch list. After watching, I can proudly state that this film from director Anderson is easily one of the most imaginative, creative, visually stunning, heart-warming and funniest films I have ever seen. While at times, you would almost think that his imagination is spinning out of control, judging from the number of ideas, story-lines, gimmicks and visual treats in the film, but if you like Wes Anderson‘s genre, you certainly will enjoy this one like I did.
Set in a dystopian Japan, the story follows Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin), a 12-year-old orphaned ward to Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), Atari’s uncle and guardian, who is looking his dog / bodyguard, Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber). Due to an overabundance of stray dogs and the possibility of a rampant canine flu known as ‘Snout Fever’ affecting humans, Mayor Kobayashi leader of Megasaki City, who comes from a long line of cat lovers, signs an order banishing all dogs to Trash Island. As six months pass with no apparent cure to the disease, Atari steals an airplane and crash lands on Trash Island and finds himself in the company of a self-proclaimed pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs, consisting of Rex (voiced by Edward Norton), the leader of the pack, Boss (voiced by Bill Murray), the former mascot of a Little League team, King (voiced by Bob Balaban), the face of a popular dog food, Duke (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) a gossip monger and Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), a stray.
As those five dogs fight off other dogs for territory, along with human forces sent to retrieve Atari, the five dogs and the boy find themselves on a dangerous and uncertain cross-island odyssey to find Spots. Meanwhile, back in the city, Tracy Walker (voiced by Greta Gerwig), an American exchange student who stands with the city’s dog lovers, develops a fascination with Atari’s story (as reported on the news) – and an obsession with uncovering the conspiracy of Trash Island.
Superficially this is director Anderson‘s most commercial film to date, yet it has all of your classic Wes Anderson tropes of lingering still shots, zany dialogue, and an outlandish take on underdogs rebelling against the system are present. From a film making viewpoint, this film has it all in spades, and more. The characters are well rounded and relatable, even though the majority of them are dogs. The story is refreshingly original and is supported strongly by an endearing band of characters with distinct looks, personalities and backstories that gradually reveal some intriguing and emotionally gripping twists and character chemistries, namely the relationship between Chief, a human-hating stray, and Atari, a boy who seeks companionship.
Here, Atari’s determination and loyalty towards finding Spots together with the story behind Chief’s coldness towards humans making for a film very hard not to take a liking to, the richness to both the narrative and characters will make you just fall in love with some of the dogs on show. But the real fun here is the banter amongst the dogs, which includes Chief, the group skeptic who doesn’t hesitate in greeting most anyone with ‘I bite’. While assisting Atari with his search, the five dogs alternate between gossiping and decision-making by committee, spouting one-liners that are consistently funny and incisive. Director Anderson co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola and his frequent collaborator Jason Schwartzman, makes sure that the film some of the best wise-cracks heard in recent times. In addition to the humor, political corruption and conspiracies are at the core of what could be described as an animated rescue adventure comedy.
Here, the immediate strengths of director Anderson are apparent: the worlds he builds. The world of Megasaki and Trash Island are all realized in vivid detail, complete with a massive array of characters on both human and animal ends that one can recall and adore. This film is not a pastiche of an American Filmmaker wanting to make a film set in Japan with American actors. This is as close to perfect as hybrid storytelling can get. A very Japanese film, told in Wes Anderson‘s personal way of whimsy. Right from the get-go, director Anderson makes it apparent he wants the culture to envelope us. All Japanese characters speak Japanese, and only 1-2 humans speak English, but the dogs only speak “English” for the benefit of our understanding of their dialogue.
Megasaki does look like Japan and Japanese text is constantly displayed and is translated in subtitles for only our benefit. There is clear respect paid to the culture director Anderson wishes to show us, and for having that courage to not simplify it out of sheer convenience, I admire his work here. There are many nods towards Japanese cinema, chiefly director Akira Kurosawa‘s films, which you can tell that director Anderson has a passion for. The way the corruption gets handled is also very Japanese as well, it is firstly in the name of business, and what is best for their bottom dollar, and the bad guys go about their plans legally, until the legality becomes their downfall, and rather than fight and lie, the bad guys accept their fate, as they acted dishonorably.
This film is one about companionship and love, which is a feeling that often goes hand-in-paw with the subject of dogs and pets. The dogs love their masters and don’t understand why they’ve been sent here, but when a “master” comes to Trash Island, they do what good dogs do, and protect their human. If you have ever been a dog owner, this film will strike a chord with you, as it has some very important things to say about our relationship with them that I think often goes understated. This is also one hell of a breathtaking film to watch, as the animation here is fantastic. Every frame is just magnificent to look at. I know it’s expected for a stop-motion film like this but you can’t help but be impressed by it, and in comparison to director Anderson‘s Fantastic Mr. Fox, this animation has ideas, for example the different styles used when a character is seen on CCTV cameras or when characters are seen in a far distance is used in different art styles and it works unbelievably well, the characters have a down to earth and real look to it, the dogs are all each identified by their types, you can tell who’s who from Chief to Nutmeg to Jupiter, their fur moves normally like wind is blowing through it, which is such a unique small detail that is just creates realism and believability.
Also the humans look fantastic, looking almost realistic with very expressive faces, they all have a unique look that stands out as well, the backgrounds are so well-crafted like the city is a place full of color and makes you feel welcomed while Trash Island has a grey, dirty, nasty, unpleasant and sad look to it that again creates a mood of misery and fear, the animation truly knows how to make stop-motion animation look impressive, extraordinary and beautiful fall at the same time. Yes, the film also has the tendency of a hit and miss nature, especially in the humor section, in the sense, when it works it is terrifically enjoyable and even adds a twinge of bleak humor at times, which is certainly bold for a film aimed at younger audiences, but when it’s too askew its painfully noticeable, distracting from the comfort ability that director Anderson usually brings.
Despite this, the film is accessible and sophisticated, strategic and human, hilarious and dramatic, strangely beautiful and directed; this animated film is an undeniable love letter from the filmmaker to Oriental culture, canines and, beyond doubt, the actions and inspirations of humankind; A feature film that produce juicy critical, controversial commentaries through generally opposed elements that are quickly woven on a story led by any manifestation of love, prioritizing narrative, technical and artistic fields with the proportionality only a maestro could handle. The excellent vocal cast is also undoubtedly one of the strengths and main anchors for the organic, charismatic and dynamic functioning of the ambitious idea.
Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Greta Gerwig, Jeff Goldblum, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schreiber, Bob Balaban, Courtney B Vance, F Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel and important Oriental exponents such as Ken Watanabe, Yoko Ono, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama or young Koyu Rankin perform a dubbing work motivated by dedication, enthusiasm and, of course, the pride of joining forces with one of the most old-school and perfectionist directors currently working. On the whole, ‘Isle of Dogs‘ is a stunning piece of stop motion animation, which with a character driven comedy story, and a bold satirical undertone, makes it one of Wes Anderson‘s finest, expertly-crafted work.
Directed – Wes Anderson
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 101 minutes